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A great power is a nation or state that has the ability to exert its influence on a global scale. Great powers characteristically possess economic, military, diplomatic, and cultural strength, which may cause other smaller nations to consider the opinions of great powers before taking actions of their own. International relations theorists have posited that great power status can be characterized into power capabilities, spatial aspects, and status dimensions. Sometimes the status of great powers is formally recognized in conferences such as the Congress of Vienna or an international structure such as the United Nations Security Council.

The term "great power" was first used to represent the most important powers in Europe during the post-Napoleonic era. Since then, the international balance of power has shifted numerous times, most dramatically during World War I and World War II. While some nations are widely considered to be great powers, there is no definitive list, leading to a continuing debate.


There are no set or defined characteristics of a great power. These characteristics have often been treated as empirical, self-evident to the assessor. However, this approach has the disadvantage of subjectivity. As a result, there have been attempts to derive some common criteria and to treat these as essential elements of great power status.

Early writings on the subject tended to judge nations by the realist criterion, as expressed by the historian AJP Taylor when he noted that "The test of a Great power is the test of strength for war." Later writers have expanded this test, attempting to define power in terms of overall military, economic, and political capacity. Kenneth Waltz, the founder of the neorealist theory of international relations, uses a set of five criteria to determine great power: population and territory; resource endowment; economic capability; political stability and competence; and military strength. These expanded criteria can be divided into three heads: power capabilities, spatial aspects, and status.

Power dimension

As noted above, for many, power capabilities were the sole criterion. However, even under the more expansive tests power retains a vital place.

This aspect has received mixed treatment, with some confusion as to the degree of power required. Writers have approached the concept of great power with differing conceptualizations of the world situation, from multi-polarity to overwhelming hegemony. In his essay, 'French Diplomacy in the Postwar Period', the French historian Jean-Baptiste Duroselle spoke to the concept of multi-polarity: "A Great power is one which is capable of preserving its own independence against any other single power."

This differed from earlier writers, notably from Leopold von Ranke, who clearly had a different idea of the world situation. In his essay 'The Great Powers', written in 1833, von Ranke wrote: "If one could establish as a definition of a Great power that it must be able to maintain itself against all others, even when they are united, then Frederick has raised Prussia to that position."

These positions have been the subject of criticism. For Duroselle's definition to result in more than one great power, major world powers must be equal in power—each able to resist one another. This fails to take into account the general state of international relations in which amongst great powers there are nations which are stronger than others.

Spatial dimension

All nations have a geographic scope of interests, actions, or projected power. This is a crucial factor in distinguishing a great power from a regional power; by definition the scope of a regional power is restricted to its region. It has been suggested that a great power should be possessed of actual influence throughout the scope of the prevailing international system. Arnold J. Toynbee, for example, observes that "Great power may be defined as a political force exerting an effect co-extensive with the widest range of the society in which it operates. The Great powers of 1914 were 'world-powers' because Western society had recently become 'world-wide'."

Other suggestions have been made that a great power should have the capacity to engage in extra-regional affairs and that a great power ought to be possessed of extra-regional interests, two propositions which are often closely connected.

Status dimension

Formal or informal acknowledgment of a nation's great-power status has also been a criterion for being a great power. As political scientist George Modelski notes, "The status of Great power is sometimes confused with the condition of being powerful, The office, as it is known, did in fact evolve from the role played by the great military states in earlier periods ... But the Great power system institutionalizes the position of the powerful state in a web of rights and obligations."

This approach restricts analysis to the post-Congress of Vienna epoch; it being there that great powers were first formally recognized. In the absence of such a formal act of recognition it has been suggested that great power status can arise by implication, by judging the nature of a state's relations with other great powers.

A further option is to examine a state's willingness to act as a great power. As a nation will seldom declare that it is acting as such, this usually entails a retrospective examination of state conduct. As a result this is of limited use in establishing the nature of contemporary powers, at least not without the exercise of subjective observation.

Other important criteria throughout history are that great powers should have enough influence to be included in discussions of political and diplomatic questions of the day, and have influence on the final outcome and resolution. Historically, when major political questions were addressed, several great powers met to discuss them. Before the era of groups like the United Nations, participants of such meetings were not officially named, but were decided based on their great power status. These were conferences which settled important questions based on major historical events. This might mean deciding the political resolution of various geographical and nationalist claims following a major conflict, or other contexts.

There are several historical conferences and treaties which display this pattern, such as the Congress of Vienna, the Congress of Berlin, the discussions of the Treaty of Versailles which redrew the map of Europe, and the Treaty of Westphalia.


sets of great, or significant, powers have existed throughout history; however, the term "great power" has only been used in scholarly or diplomatic discourse since the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Congress established the Concert of Europe as an attempt to preserve peace after the years of Napoleonic Wars.

Lord Castlereagh, the British Foreign Secretary, first used the term in its diplomatic context, in a letter sent on February 13, 1814: "It affords me great satisfaction to acquaint you that there is every prospect of the Congress terminating with a general accord and Guarantee between the Great powers of Europe, with a determination to support the arrangement agreed upon, and to turn the general influence and if necessary the general arms against the Power that shall first attempt to disturb the Continental peace."

The Congress of Vienna consisted of five main powers: the United Kingdommarker, the Austrian Empiremarker, Prussia, Francemarker, and Russiamarker. Other powers, such as Spainmarker, Portugal, and Swedenmarker were consulted on certain specific issues, but they were not full participants. Hanovermarker, Bavariamarker, and Württembergmarker were also consulted on issues relating to Germany. These five primary participants constituted the original great powers as we know the term today.

Of the five original great powers recognised at the Congress of Vienna, only France and the United Kingdom have maintained that status to the present day, although France was conquered and occupied during World War II. After the Congress of Vienna, the British Empire emerged as the pre-eminent power, due to its navy and the extent of its territories and signaled the beginning of the Pax Britannica and of The Great Game between Britain and Russia. The Balance of power between the Great Powers became a major influence in European politics forcing Otto von Bismarck to say "All politics reduces itself to this formula: try to be one of three, as long as the world is governed by the unstable equilibrium of five great powers."

Over time, the relative power of these five nations fluctuated, which by the dawn of the 20th century had served to create an entirely different balance of power. Some, such as the UK and Prussia (as part of the newly-formed German statemarker), experienced continued economic growth and political power. Others, such as Russia and Austria-Hungary, slowly stagnated.. At the same time, other states were emerging and expanding in power, largely through the process of industrialization. The foremost of these emerging powers were Japanmarker after the Meiji Restoration and the United Statesmarker after its civil war, both of which had been minor powers in 1815. By the dawn of the 20th century the balance of world power had changed substantially since the Congress of Vienna. The Eight-Nation Alliance was a belligerent alliance of eight nations against the Boxer Rebellion in China. It formed in 1900 and consisted of the five Congress powers plus Italy, Japan, and the United States, representing the great powers at the beginning of 20th century.

Great powers at war

of international power have most notably occurred through major conflicts. The conclusion of the Great War and the resulting treaties of Versailles, St-Germain, and Trianon witnessed the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Japan and the United States as the chief arbiters of the new world order. In the aftermath of World War I the German Empire was defeated, the Austria-Hungarian empire was divided into new, less powerful states and the Russian Empiremarker fell to a revolution. During the Treaty of Versailles the "Big Three"—France, the United Kingdom, and the United States—held noticeably more power and influence on the proceedings and outcome of the treaty than Italy or Japan. The victorious great powers also gained an acknowledgment of their status through permanent seats at the League of Nations Council, where they acted as a type of executive body directing the Assembly of the League. But the Council began with only four permanent members – Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan – because the United States, meant to be the fifth permanent member, left because the US Senate voted on 19 March 1920 against the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, thus preventing American participation in the League.

When World War II started in 1939, it divided the world into two alliances – the Allies (Great Britain and France at first, followed in 1941 by the Soviet Unionmarker, the United States, and China); and the Axis powers consisting of Germany and the former Allies Italy and Japan. The end of World War II saw the United States, United Kingdom, and Soviet Union emerge as the primary victors. The importance of the Republic of Chinamarker and France was acknowledged by their inclusion, along with the other three, in the group of countries allotted permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council.

the end of the World Wars, the term "great power" has been joined by a number of other power classifications. Foremost among these is the concept of the superpower, used to describe those nations with overwhelming power and influence in the rest of the world. It was first coined in 1944 by William T.R. Fox and according to him, there were three superpowers: the British Empire, the United Statesmarker, and the Soviet Unionmarker. But by the mid 1950s the British Empire lost its superpower status, leaving the United States and the Soviet Union as the world's superpowers. The term middle power has emerged for those nations which exercise a degree of global influence, but are insufficient to be decisive on international affairs. Regional powers are those whose influence is generally confined to their region of the world.

During the Cold War, the Asian power of Japan and the European powers of the United Kingdom, France, and West Germanymarker rebuilt their economies. France and the United Kingdom maintained technologically advanced armed forces with power projection capabilities and maintain large defence budgets to this day. Yet, as the Cold War continued, authorities began to question if France and the United Kingdom could retain their long-held statuses as great powers.China, with the world's largest population, has slowly risen to great power status, with large growth in economic and military power in the post-war period. By the 1970s, the Republic of China began to lose its recognition as the sole legitimate government of China by the other great powers, in favour of the People's Republic of Chinamarker. Subsequently, in 1971, it lost its permanent seat at the UN Security Council to the People's Republic of China.

Aftermath of the Cold War

[[Image:Great Powers Map (C21st).png|349px|thumb|right|The present day governments thought of as great powers

At present China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States are sometimes referred to as great powers, although there is no unanimous agreement among authorities as to the current status of these powers or what precisely defines a "great" power, and sources have referred to the China, France, and the UK as "middle powers". Those five nations are the only states to have permanent seats on the UN Security Council. They are also the recognized "Nuclear Weapons States" under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In addition, despite the lack of a permanent seat at the UN Security Council, Germany and Japan are occasionally considered to be great powers, although GermanyGermany is also considered by Chancellor Angela Merkel, former president Johannes Rau, and leading media of the country, as a "middle" political power in Europe.

and Japan are referred to by others as middle powers or economic great powers.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, its UN Security Council permanent seat was transferred to the Russian Federationmarker in 1991, as its successor state. The newly-formed Russian Federation emerged on the level of a great power, leaving the United States as the only remaining global superpower (although this is disputed in the multipolar world view).

With continuing European integration, the European Union is increasingly being seen as a great power in its own right, most notably in areas where it has exclusive competence (i.e. economic affairs), and with representation at the WTO and at G8 and G-20 summits. The European Union, however, is not a sovereign state and has limited scope in the areas of foreign affairs and defence policy, which remain with the union's member states, including France, Germany and the United Kingdom.

See also



  1. Danilovic, Vesna. "When the Stakes Are High—Deterrence and Conflict among Major Powers", University of Michigan Press (2002), p 27, p225-p228 (PDF chapter downloads) (PDF copy).
  2. Webster, Charles K, Sir (ed), British Diplomacy 1813–1815: Selected Documents Dealing with the Reconciliation of Europe, G Bell (1931), p307.
  3. Organski, AFK – World Politics, Knopf (1958)
  4. contained on page 204 in: Kertesz and Fitsomons (eds) – Diplomacy in a Changing World, University of Notre Dame Press (1959)
  5. Iggers and von Moltke "In the Theory and Practice of History", Bobbs-Merril (1973)
  6. Stoll, Richard J – State Power, World Views, and the Major Powers, Contained in: Stoll and Ward (eds) – Power in World Politics, Lynne Rienner (1989)
  7. Domke, William K – Power, Political Capacity, and Security in the Global System, Contained in: Stoll and Ward (eds) – Power in World Politics, Lynn Rienner (1989)
  8. Peace, War, and the European Powers, 1814–1914
  9. Ideology and International Relations in the Modern World
  10. The Transformation of European Politics, 1763–1848
  11. Britain And Germany: from Ally to Enemy
  12. Power Transitions as the cause of war.
  13. Globalization and Autonomy by Julie Sunday, McMaster University.
  14. Paris 1919 by Margaret MacMillan has the Council of Five Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the United States as the main victors and renaming Great Powers.
  15. Harrison, M (2000) The Economics of World War II: Six Great Powers in International Comparison, Cambridge University Press.
  16. The 1956 Suez Crisis suggested that Britain, financially weakened by two world wars, could not then pursue its foreign policy objectives on an equal footing with the new superpowers without sacrificing convertibility of its reserve currency as a central goal of policy. – from superpower cited by Adam Klug and Gregor W. Smith, 'Suez and Sterling', Explorations in Economic History, Vol. 36, No. 3 (July 1999), pp. 181–203.
  17. Gerald Segal, Does China Matter?, Foreign Affairs (September/October 1999).
  18. Er LP (2006) Japan's Human Security Rolein Southeast Asia
  19. The fall of the Berlin wall and the breakup of the Soviet Union left the United States as the only remaining superpower in the 90's.

Further reading

  • The Tragedy of Great Power Politics by John J. Mearsheimer
  • Theory of International Politics by Kenneth N Waltz
  • World Politics: Trend and Transformation by Eugene R. Witkopf
  • The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy
  • France and the Nazi Threat: The Collapse of French Diplomacy 1932–1939 by Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, Introduction by Anthony Adamthwaite (Enigma Books, ISBN 1-929631-15-4)

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